Al Jazeera World - The Imam and the Colonel

Al Jazeera English

by Al Jazeera English

  • About
  • Export
  • Add to
The downfall of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi last year was greeted with great hopes for the rebirth of a nation.
But there was another hope felt by many inside and outside of the country - that the end of his 42-year rule would allow some light to be shed on the fate of a charismatic Lebanese cleric.

Imam Musa al-Sadr, the leader of Lebanon's Shia Muslims, disappeared, along with two companions, in the summer of 1978 during a visit to Libya to meet Gaddafi.

As in the Shia myth of the 'hidden imam', this modern-day cleric left his followers upholding his legacy and awaiting his return.

The enigmatic cleric's popularity had transcended religions. Calling for social justice and development, in 1974 al-Sadr founded the Movement of the Deprived - aiming to unite people across communal lines.

Archbishop Youssef Mounes of Lebanon's Catholic Information Centre remembers a sermon al-Sadr delivered in a church, in which he warned of an imminent sectarian war.

"It was a surreal scene," Mounes says. "Seeing the turban of a Muslim imam under the cross in a Christian church. He delivered a sermon at a very significant time."

Raed Sharaf al-Din, al-Sadr's nephew, recalls how his uncle believed that Lebanon's sectarian nature could cut both ways: "Imam al-Sadr used to say that sects are a blessing, but sectarianism is a curse. It's a blessing to have this diversity of sects in Lebanon. But when there is strife among them, sectarianism is the worst thing for a country."

When civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, al-Sadr led anti-war protests. And as the war intensified, so too did al-Sadr's efforts to end it. As part of this, he toured the Arab world to plead the case for south Lebanon.

In 1978, this took him to Libya where he was due to meet Gaddafi.

He was never seen again.

In the years since, conflicting stories have emerged about what happened to al-Sadr and his two companions. Now hopes have been raised that new evidence and witnesses will emerge to help solve the mystery of the missing imam.